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Mental health – an important part of health and safety

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18 April, 2024Work and mental health are closely linked together. As many people spend the majority of their time at work it is important to address mental health in the workplace, and here unions have an important role to play.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to their community.

Risks to mental health in the workplace, also called psychosocial risks, include under-use of skills or being under-skilled for work, excessive workloads or work pace, understaffing, long, unsocial, or inflexible hours, unsafe or poor physical working conditions and violence, harassment, or bullying. 

Psychosocial risks are becoming more and more prevalent at work including for white-collar workers with the development of new technologies and the related accelerated rhythm of work. 88 per cent of EU workers have experienced stress problems at work. According to Eurocadres, 60 per cent of lost working days can be attributed to work related stress and psychosocial risks.  

Says Armelle Seby, director for white-collar workers: 

“Mental health is still often misunderstood, under-resourced and deprioritized when compared with physical health. Legislations over psychosocial risks and duties of employers are often not sufficient. Furthermore individuals with mental health conditions are often stigmatized, discriminated against and excluded. The widespread stigma creates a barrier. Some employers may be reluctant to hire people with mental health conditions and some workers may hesitate to disclose or seek help because they fear adverse career repercussions.”

Even though protecting workers mental health at work is part of employers’ duty of care, trade unions can play an important role in reducing mental health issues in the workplace. It is important for unions to understand these risks and become familiar with how to address them. Unions can work with employers to assess the risks, reorganize the work environment in order to reduce psychosocial risks and can advocate for training managers on mental disorders at the workplaces.

The WHO and the International Labour Organization (ILO) have developed guidelines that trade unions can use, these include: planned actions that directly target working conditions to prevent deterioration in mental or physical health and quality of life and assessing and modifying, mitigating or removing psychosocial risks to mental health.

ILO’s fundamental Conventions: Occupational Health and Safety (OHS), and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention aim to protect both physical and mental health of workers and to prevent occupational accidents and diseases. Together, these Conventions allow an establishment of a systems approach to the management of OSH, defining the key responsibilities, duties and rights in the field, and highlighting the complementary roles of governments, employers and workers in creating safe and healthy working environments.

Trade unions, such as Unite the Union in UK, or USW in Canada, have developed their own guidelines to support their shop stewards, health and safety reps, and their members to tackle mental health issues and discrimination at work, and to campaign and negotiate for good mental health.

Unions in Singapore are participating in a tripartite advisory on mental well-being at workplaces which was established in response to growing mental health issues in the workplace. The advisory, made up of  the ministry of manpower (MOM), National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), sets out practical guidance on measures that employers can adopt to support their employees’ mental well-being, and provides resources that employers, employees and self-employed persons can tap into.

The measures include conducting surveys to understand the general state of well-being and work stressors, appointing workplace mental well-being champions to encourage senior management to implement policies and support, creating activities, programmes and resources to enhance employees’ mental health, establishing a system to refer people in distress to professionals, reviewing HR and workplace policies centred around supporting employee mental health, establishing return to work policies to support employees recovering from mental health conditions. 

“In Singapore and in my union, we classify mental health as a workplace safety and health issue. We conduct workshops with workers and union representatives, we provide them with online and offline resources which assists workers in how to look out for their mental health. In our mental wellness workshops we educate workers on how to cope with stress which includes exercise and fitness classes to keep physically fit and destress,”

says Patrick Tay Teck Guan from National Trades Union Congress and co-chair for white collar workers sector at IndustriALL.

Addressing how working from home can affect mental health, French union CFE-CGC métallurgie is measuring the workload to identify any overload which has the potential of damanaging the employees’ health mentally and physically. They then need to know how to regulate it and prevent any future overload. 

Corinne Schewin, from CFE-CGC métallurgie and white-collar sector co-chair, says: 

“Union representatives go to different departments to speak to workers to determine their mental well-being. We check on how much sleep people get, we look at the work environments and then we have to speak to the HR department and inform them that managers need help. We also have clauses in company collective agreements protecting workers’ mental health, these look at the quality of work and the conditions of work.”

Armelle Seby, says: 

“When it comes to mental health in the workplace, it is important for trade unions to participate in risk management, prioritize actions, develop action plans and monitor and evaluate these plans. Trade unions should also improve understanding about mental health and well-being at work, shift attitudes around mental health conditions to reduce stigma, encourage help-seeking behaviours, implement mechanisms to fight harassment at work and protect victims and support people with mental health conditions.”

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